For decades they said it. The north needs an all-weather track. Just over six years ago the announcement that Newcastle racecourse would indeed be tearing up its turf and replacing it with an all-weather circuit which would include a straight mile was greeted incredulously, writes Tony Stafford.
At the forefront of the criticism were some of the biggest trainers in the sport. Articles in late August 2014 by Greg Wood in the Independent and Chris Cook in the Guardian quoted, respectively, John Gosden and William Haggas, although others such as Mark Johnston, Sir Michael Stoute and Ralph Beckett were equally critical.
Gosden told Wood: “This is sacrilege. There is a requirement for an all-weather track in the north of England but Newcastle is emphatically not the solution. Racing on a one-mile straight as betting-shop fodder under lights will produce one-dimensional boat races.
“British racing requires upgrading and the destruction of one of the best turf courses in the UK is sacrilege,” Gosden re-emphasised.
Haggas spoke to Cook as the big-players’ campaign to prevent the change gathered momentum. Presumably the fact they were resisted by ARC (Arena Racing Company) was quite a surprise. Several of the same group were equally vocal in their criticisms of recently-departed Nick Rust at the start of the Covid pandemic back in the spring.
Regarding the Gosforth Park transition, Haggas told Cook: “The only way to stop it is not to support it <in other words a boycott>. The north does need a track nearer than Southwell but surely this <Newcastle> isn’t it.” He went on: “Field sizes will suffer as the horse population shrinks and opportunities there increase. Johnston and Fahey won’t want to come down <to the existing all-weather courses in the south>.”
Indeed, Haggas went so far as to say that, if ARC did get their way to have the new all-weather track replacing the turf Flat course, they would almost certainly respond by closing one of their other tracks.
Anyway, history tells us that with a Michael Dickinson-inspired Tapeta surface, the switch did indeed happen, and no other all-weather track has closed.
Then on November 28th 2016, “Mr Sacrilege” chose Newcastle ahead of Kempton, Lingfield, Southwell , Wolverhampton or the recently re-opened Chelmsford for the debut of Enable, the best horse to race in the UK, never mind ratings, since Frankel.
There were seven all-weather fixtures at Newcastle in the final month of 2020. Understandably Mark Johnston was, as ever, represented but in eight novice or condition races in the period Haggas, Gosden, Beckett and Stoute’s staff all loaded up the horseboxes for the 486-mile round trip. It would have been more like 600 miles for the Beckett runner, a December 12th novice winner from a Haggas odds-on shot with Gosden and Johnston runners following him home.
On the first day of December, a ten-furlong two-year-old novice was won by one of two Charlie Appleby Godolphin runners with Gosden, Johnston and Gosden again the next three home. Fifth and sixth were Charlie’s, Fellowes and Appleby. Three days later, David O’Meara struck a rare winning note for the locals in a six-furlong juvenile novice, with a Haggas favourite only fourth. A three-year-old novice later on that card fell predictably to a Saeed Bin Suroor-trained 5-1 on shot for Godolphin.
There was no Newmarket-trained runner in the novice on December 15th but six days later Sir Michael Stoute stepped in with an odds-on winner, beating a Roger Varian runner with Haggas again well beaten in fifth.
On December 28th the sole Newmarket runner in the novice for three-year-olds and up so emphatically outclassed the ten northern hopefuls that it started at 3-1 on and won comfortably for Charlie Fellowes.
The north might have got its all-weather track but I’m sure the last thing the trainers handling the fortunes of 179 stables of the 595 listed in the 2020 Horses in Training annual as being based north of the Trent, are finding it all that satisfactory.
William Haggas warned that Mark Johnston and Richard Fahey would no longer send their horses south, but from the moment he and John Gosden realised that however good Gosforth Park had been as a Flat turf track, it was at least as good for all-weather, the die was cast.
So much so that when the 2019 Vertem Futurity at waterlogged Doncaster needed a home in November last year, Newcastle stepped in to stage its first Group 1 race. That its winner, Kameko, went on to win the 2,000 Guineas next time out could only encourage the big shots to keep coming.
I could easily have miscounted the number of trainers operating north of the Trent on my one-time slow-motion read through yesterday and the location of some of those towards the west of the country might be questionable. What is fact is that almost 30% of UK trainers are relying on Newcastle for their chance to get some winter prizemoney.
The two major training centres in the north are Middleham, home among many others to Johnston, and Malton, where Fahey trains. From Middleham to Newcastle involves a one-way trip of 60 miles. It’s around 84 from Malton.
As Gosden said those few years ago, they needed somewhere nearer than Southwell, 106 miles from Middleham. When the Johnston lorries wheel out of Kingsley House or Kingsley Park in the mornings their travelling lads face trips of 231 miles (one-way) to Chelmsford, 254 to Kempton and 274 to Lingfield. It’s a relatively short hop of 160 miles to Wolverhampton.
The West Midlands track has already been busy this year with a fixture in a snow storm on Saturday evening. Today will be the first of four consecutive days and five more before the end of the month will bring its tally up to ten January fixtures.
That will be exceeded by Lingfield with 11, followed by Southwell, eight, and Kempton with six. There are only three planned for Chelmsford, two fewer than Newcastle’s five. The only snag is the programmes at Newcastle are not very northern-trainer-friendly.
Of 35 planned races (usually one or two per meeting can be divided) there is a bias towards high-rated handicaps which does not help many of the smaller trainers based in the region, where most small stables rely on second-hand moderate animals. Of the 35, only seven cater for horses with an upper limit of 60 – two are 0-50 (including one classified), three of 46-55 and two 46-60. Most of these are at the end of the month.
Contrastingly, there are ten opportunities for horses rated from 61 to 95 and nine more for those from 51-75. Eight conditions or novice races will keep the wagons rolling north from Newmarket and beyond.
Wolverhampton’s next four days feature 31 races, and 14 of them are in the 0-60 brackets with five catering for 0-50 horses. As the BHA no doubt will say, northern stables can easily come down but while the richer owners with their horses in the top Newmarket stables can shrug off expensive travel costs and all-day absence of staff attending those horses, smaller operations are far less able to persuade owners to stump up high expenses for the chance of gaining modest prizemoney.
To put it in perspective, a horse trained near Newcastle, where there is no suitable target, will need to travel to the other tracks and undergo 150 miles to Southwell, 204 to Wolverhampton, 274 to Chelmsford, 298 to Kempton and a bumper 318 miles to Lingfield.
The respective distances from Newmarket are 50 to Chelmsford, 93 to Lingfield, 103 to Southwell, 105 to Kempton and a still-manageable 121 miles to Wolverhampton.
In 2020 John Gosden ran 168 different horses on all-weather tracks winning 62 races from a total 266 runners. Nine of the wins came at Newcastle, including Palace Pier, winner of a conditions race on his reappearance in June, a race that provided the springboard for two Group 1 victories. He lost his unbeaten record when third in the Ascot quagmire behind The Revenant on Champions Day at Ascot, until which time he was regarded as the best miler in Europe.
So that is the sort of opposition the locals will have to contend with going forward unless something is done. I think it’s time that some of the vulnerable targets that can be so easily picked off are made a little more difficult.
Many years ago, there were a few races restricted to horses trained north of the Trent. Maybe it’s time to re-instate them so that maidens at least can become more competitive. True, that might mean that with fewer 5-1 on shots, the betting-shop cannon-fodder might be improved – imagine what long odds-on shots must do for turnover! – and northern trainers will be less frightened of getting too near horses that are almost sure to go on and be pattern-race performers.
There must be a case anyway that anything that helps restrict the further spread of Covid in these testing times is welcome. Scotland is in total lockdown but horse boxes can roll in with impunity from south of the border.
There is one person, apart from the former most vocal opponents of Newcastle’s remodelled track, who would be mortified if the traffic north stops coming up from Newmarket. Simon Mapletoft, often the course link at Newcastle, is beside himself with excitement when a Gosden, Haggas or indeed any of the other big HQ stables has a runner.
Still, as he commented the other day, Southwell will be switching to Tapeta soon, so he can look forward to getting just as reverent in Nottinghamshire before long as he has been in Northumberland these past few years.